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The End of Negativity – Raptitude Experiment No. 5

No complaining

Time for another experiment. This one I’ve been meaning to do for a long time. The idea behind it has made the rounds for a few years now and I’m not the first to do it, but I think the concept is fascinating and brimming with potential.

One day Will Bowen, a mild-mannered Missouri Reverend, challenged his congregation to develop their habit of gratitude by going 21 consecutive days without complaining or criticizing.

His method was quite simple and ingenious:

1) Put a silicone bracelet on either wrist.

2) If you did not complain at all yesterday, you go on to the next day. After day zero is day one, then day two, and so on.

3) Whenever you catch yourself complaining, criticizing, or gossiping, switch the bracelet to the other wrist and begin again at day zero.

4) When you’ve completed your 21st day, you can take your bracelet off if you want.

The act of switching the bracelet over reminds you of your intention to quit complaining altogether, and the sting of starting again should harden your resolve to drop the complaining habit for good.

It doesn’t matter how far you got, one complaint and you’re back to zero. Even if you are on day nineteen and you snap and say “You know, this lavender ice cream really blows,” then you are back at day zero.

Reverend Bowen’s experiment has since become a movement called “A Complaint Free World.” The idea is that non-complaining is contagious, and if enough people take up the challenge, complaining will go out of style. Bowen and his movement are now quite well known, featuring on Oprah and other A-list media spots.

Why do this at all?

Complaining makes for a crap state of mind. It keeps a person concerned with what he would like the world to be, while it steadfastly continues to be whatever the hell it pleases. Complaining triggers negative emotions that aren’t really fun to experience (resentment, craving, angst) and blinds a person to the parts of the moment that are perfectly fine. Gratitude is a subtler emotion than derision, so it gets overrun easily by even the slightest complaint. Less complaining equals more happiness. Few things are as simple.

If you’ve ever known somebody who complains constantly, you know that they carry their misery wherever they go. Most of us complain on an occasional basis, but almost certainly more than daily and probably more than we think. If nothing else, this experiment will show me how much I really do complain.

Like all bad habits, it does have a dubious benefit: it defends one from the responsibilities of either accepting or changing life as it already is, and this provides a bit of an ego boost to the complainer.

When you get into the mindset of how this moment is flawed, you’ve forfeited any chance at gratitude or happiness in that moment in favor of an uninvited analysis of how things “should” be. Some people derive a steady but dim joy from identifying what is wrong with everything, but I think you and I can do better than that.

I want to sharpen my ability to be grateful, and stop wasting any time wishing life was different than it already is. I also want to crush the “this sucks” reflex complelely, and leave an “Ok, let’s see what I can do with this” reflex in its wake.

Overcoming the complaint reflex is a path to becoming less uptight, less fearful and less prone to being overwhelmed, as well becoming more pleasant to be around, more resilient to adversity, and a better problem solver. Complaining is ducking responsibility for your experience, and responsibility is power. I want to take full responsibility for what happens to me, and the complaint reflex gets in the way.

I do share Bowen’s belief that non-complaining improves the moods and dispositions of people around the non-complainer. having said that, I tend to be suspicious of notions of an anything-free world, or any other mentalities focused on eradicating something. That debate aside, right now I am only looking to reprogram my own bad habits and unleash new and helpful good habits on an unsuspecting public. “The best sermon is a good example,” says celebrated quote-machine Ben Franklin.

So for now, I make no attempt to change the world here, I’ll just see what happens to myself. Any world-changing that does occur is purely coincidental.

Why didn’t I do this before?

Like many important decisions in life, it was a matter of color co-ordination. I bought Will Bowen’s book last year, along with four silicone bracelets. For some bizarre reason, the official bracelets are an awful purple color, which has probably hindered the Complaint Free World cause more than anything else.

Still, I wore one of them for a while to get into the complaint-monitoring habit, but I found myself trying to slip the loud purple bracelet beneath the cuff of my sleeves.

Third-party, non-purple bracelets might have worked, except that it needs to be easy to take off and put on again. Most of the time, my wrist-switching occured while I was still interacting with people and I didn’t want it to be a particularly conspicuous action.

Nor did I want to explain my experiment to everyone, so suddenly showing up in my regular social circles with an uncharacteristic purple bracelet, I had to do that a lot.

I had intended to order custom silicone bracelets online, but never got around to it before I left home and now I have no mailing address.

Luckily, there are substitutes for the bracelet, though I didn’t think of it at the time. For now, I’m going to keep a seashell or some other trinket in one pocket and switch it to the other instead of switching a bracelet between wrists. Once I’ve got an address again I’ll order custom (black!) bracelets.

What constitutes a complaint?

This is a matter of opinion, and I think it’s important for anyone attempting this to make sure they define complaining to themselves before they start. If it is ambiguous, you’ll eventually get frustrated with the effort and get nowhere.

Bowen defines complaining as “to express grief, pain, or discontent.” This is pretty good, but doesn’t quite do it for me. After all, there are times when you are actually attempting to change the situation by speaking up, rather than merely lamenting it. Filing a noise complaint to your landlord might be a perfectly sensible action in some circumstances, and doesn’t necessarily mean you are whining or pouting. I think the impulse-driven, emotional outburst is what creates the real problem. The typical complaint is of a compulsive, reactive nature that hijacks the mood without warning and accomplishes nothing. It is possible to express discontent tactfully and for perfectly good reasons.

Lifestyle design pioneer Tim Ferriss, self-described as a fan of constructive criticism, settled on this definition when he did the experiment:

“Describing an event or person negatively without indicating next steps to fix the problem. “

That works for me, though I don’t think there is necessarily a problem to fix every time I feel the impulse to complain. But the aimless negativity is indeed what I want to stop, so this will be my de facto definition of complaining for this experiment.

Ferriss also discovered an unexpected benefit from his refined definition. It conditioned his reflex for problem-solving, getting him immediately thinking about what to actually do about every complaint-inducing event that popped up, rather than what to wish for.

One question that always comes up is whether to count complaints that only occur in your head. Bowen says not to count them, because you will overcome the habit of complaining internally once you are out of the habit of articulating your complaints.

Most of my complaining does happen inside my head and I still think it is destructive, but for now I will take his word for it and begin without counting internal complaints. I’ll see if they cease naturally as I continue to call myself on the external ones. If not, I’ll make the necessary adjustments.

Any vocalization counts though, even grumbles, audible sighs, or “pfffts.” These little noises voice protest just like any articulated complaint, and I want to knock out these reflexes too. Nobody else has to hear it, it just has to come out of my mouth. Eye rolls will be interpreted as a stern warning but won’t require restarting unless I do it so forcefully that it makes a noise.

There are bound to be trickier instances as well. For example, what if I post a critical comment as my Facebook status with the aim of making people laugh, is it still a complaint? This will be part of the learning process, and I can’t predict every contingency. I’ll have to make up policies as I go. I’ll talk about these in the experiment log.

The Experiment

This one could take a while. It takes most people six to eight months to get up to that three-week mark.

The experiment will commence Monday, February 8th, 2010. I will keep an experiment log (to be launched Monday as well) in the Experiments section of Raptitude. Updates will not be daily, but will be fairly regular. I’m going to aim for less than a week between updates.

I encourage you to do this too. Probably best not to bother unless you are serious about making this pointed behavior change though. Most of Bowen’s congregation quit fairly quickly, effectively resigning themselves to a lifetime of compulsive complaining. I wanted to wait until I was ready before I did this experiment, and I wanted to do it publicly so you can help hold me accountable.

If you do want to do it with me, please drop me a note or leave comments in the experiment log. It’s always nice to have companions.

You may have recognized that this bracelet technique could work just as well with any compulsive habit. If I make strides here, I just might bring it to bear on all kinds of other terrible things I still do.


View David’s experiment log here. You can also publish your own updates there if you are doing the experiment too.


Photo by gf8

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Patty - Why Not Start Now? February 4, 2010 at 3:31 am

Hi David – I started reading this and thought, what a worthy experiment. Then something hit me: I’d be out of work if people stopped expressing grief, pain, or discontent. And so often those things do serve a purpose (I could write volumes about that but I’ll refrain). I know you decided not to use that definition, but even the Ferris definition doesn’t feel right to me somehow. So I’m kind of ambivalent about the whole concept, yet fascinated to see what you do with it.
.-= Patty – Why Not Start Now?´s last blog ..Getting Comfortable With I DON’T KNOW =-.

David February 4, 2010 at 3:42 am

Hi Patty. I do urge people to come up with their own definition, or maybe not even worry about it at all. Obviously, expressing grief in a therapeutic setting is neither purposeless nor destructive, so no need to be a bracelet nazi and enforce it to the letter of the law.

All you really need to do is understand exactly what behavior it is you’re trying to stop, and switch wrists when you do it. No I wouldn’t even worry to much about verbal definitions. You’ll know when you’ve crossed your own line or not.

Jay Schryer February 4, 2010 at 6:52 am

Man, if you roll your eyes so hard it makes a sound, that would be awesome! I’m sure you could find a way to turn that into some cash, so maybe it wouldn’t be so negative after all? :)

On a more serious note, I think this is a great experiment! Looking forward to reading about your progress.
.-= Jay Schryer´s last blog ..My Dream Job…Really? =-.

David February 4, 2010 at 12:54 pm

Haha I’ve always wanted to have some kind of sideshow talent I could turn into extra income. Maybe I could work on that.

Positively Present February 4, 2010 at 8:16 am

What a great post! You know I love this one since I’m always working to put an end to negativity. Love the experiment!
.-= Positively Present´s last blog ..L.O.V.E.: 4 unique ways to express your love =-.

David February 4, 2010 at 1:09 pm

Hi Dani! Always good to hear from you.

Andrew February 4, 2010 at 9:45 am

Hi Dave! Funny you should write about this now – I’ve found myself making a similar resolution. I’ve written up on my belief board “I am happy, life is good, I am so grateful for everything.” I was just sick of being unhappy about everything. It’s great! When you focus on the positive, the negative just kind of fades away.

However, for that reason I don’t want to focus on NOT complaining… lol. :)

Good work.


David February 4, 2010 at 1:16 pm

Well as much as it sounds like a “double negative,” it is a means of focusing on the positive. As I mentioned, I have tried it before and it’s amazing how the mind finds a positive way to deal with things.

Jessica February 4, 2010 at 11:11 am

I like it. I’ll probably try it with a ring instead of a bracelet, because I’m girly and I like my experiments to be shiny. Besides, I have a ring with an engraving on the inside that reads, “Imagine, believe, receive.” I figure that’s appropriate.

Aside from overcoming negativity, I like this because it just helps to begin being more mindful of your own thought processes, which in turn gives you greater control over your words, actions, and so forth.
Once when I was working summer stock theatre, the set for 42nd Street was so far behind that the cast had One Day to rehearse their -tap numbers- on small, raked, four-foot high platforms. The director walked in and saved the day by saying, “Okay people. I want to hear solutions, not problems.”
.-= Jessica´s last blog ..A Brief Taoish, Writerly Thursday =-.

David February 4, 2010 at 1:18 pm

Yes, if nothing else it will definitely reveal how much negativity is actually going on in there.

It’s great that you’ll be using a symbolic item as you “bracelet.” Until I get a wearable bracelet I’m going to use a little pocket stone with a kiwi painted on it.

Trish Scott February 4, 2010 at 11:41 am

I have always found positive reinforcement superior to punishing the negative. This could well just prove to many that they are right about themselves – useless, stupid, etc. I would rather see the bracelet change wrists for thoughts of love and gratitude and random acts of kindness. The more you do the BETTER you feel.

David February 4, 2010 at 1:21 pm

I am a fan of positive reinforcement too, but I wouldn’t call this negative reinforcement. The wrist-switching is only a reminder, not a punishment. The reinforcement is the pleasant feeling of not having complained for a while.

If I changed wrists for every positive thought, I’d get sick of switching it all the time and take it off :)

Tim February 4, 2010 at 5:22 pm

I say this with positivity and sans sarcasm: I love my cynicism. It’s a vital part of my system that brings me back down to earth when I have my head up too high.

My friend has been noticing his own negativity recently, and it’s something he wants to work on. And with some of those non-complaining insights I think he’ll have an easier time.

Or I’ll forget to tell him… Oh well; no use complaining.

David February 5, 2010 at 2:46 am

The cool thing is you can use the technique for any habit really; might as well chose one you don’t like :)

Drew Tkac February 4, 2010 at 9:57 pm

I think the Reverend Will Bowen has very good intentions, but has not taken the application of his request to its logical conclusion. Assume that people stop complaining to each other. This leads to the cessation of complaining in the mind and causes the end of human dissatisfaction. This would be a tragedy and the death of human nature.

At one time in our history someone said, “I am tired of walking, I can’t walk fast enough and my feet hurt.” Clearly a complaint that resulted in horses being domesticated. Then someone said, “This horse is not fast enough,” and the automobile was invented. Then someone said, “This takes so long to drive from coast to coast.” So the airplane and jet airliner were invented. Dissatisfaction, from a sociological perspective, is the driving force to the modern world for which the human species is solely responsible.

In 1943 Abraham Maslow established a hierarchy of human needs. These are physiological (air water food), safety, love/belonging, esteem and self-actualization. His theory was that a person could not move up to the higher need until the lower one was reasonably fulfilled. In a later paper he also postulated that one can tell where a person is in this hierarchy by what he or she complains about and called these meta-grumbles. Dissatisfaction, from a psychological perspective, drives our assent up the ladder of needs.

The Dali Lama, a spiritual leader, said the meaning of life is to seek happiness. Implicit in this statement is that I am not as happy now as I could be later. Because we can define good feelings as the absence of painful feelings, we can perform some logical transposition and say that I am dissatisfied now but I am seeking to be less dissatisfied later.

Perfect happiness is unattainable. There is always something more we want and perhaps can never attain. The pathway, the road, the highway to happiness must be taken as we go through life, we have no choice (unless we are willing to cease being human), and what fuels us is dissatisfaction.

The problem, I believe, is the feeling that we have come to associate with dissatisfaction. It’s a pain, a longing, a desire that cannot be fulfilled, a lack of choice or a feeling of helplessness. It is our survival trait to run away from pain.

Each of us must retrain our minds to be happy in the dissatisfaction. It is not a contradiction to be happy where we are, and happy on our journey that we have chosen to some place else because we might be happier there, because we might be less dissatisfied there. Because after we get there, the cycle starts again. So we better enjoy the process.

David February 5, 2010 at 7:10 pm

Interesting thoughts, thanks Drew. I don’t agree that perfect happiness is unattainable. We attain it all the time, but it is always fleeting. Permanent happiness is definitely unattainable, and I think tha Dali Lama would be the first to tell you that :)

It really depends how we define the terms here. Dissatisfaction can mean not getting what you want, or it can also be a synonym for dukkha, the pain of longing that you describe.

Learning to sit with pain and disappointment is worthwhile work, I agree.

Drew Tkac February 6, 2010 at 10:04 am

Good points David. Thanks for the reply!

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) February 5, 2010 at 4:35 am

I can see the value of Bowen’s technique to prioritize what it actually is that I complain about. I think my definition of “complaint” would become more specific. Which is always a good thing.

I am not keen not to complain at all though. My time here is for a human experience, having a good whinge and ducking responsibility is part of that. My de Bono inspired household code #17 notifies clearly to other housemates that, “F**k, I hate the world today!” This numerical symbol may stay on the fridge for up to an hour.

I am not here for Nirvana~ well, at least not on a permanent basis ~:-)

David February 5, 2010 at 7:13 pm

Hehe, good point. I wouldn’t be quitting complaining if it actually made me happy.

Erin February 5, 2010 at 12:35 pm

The world would be a different place if everyone did this experiment. Can you imagine if we all were going about our business to make it a great day, doing our work and tasks to our best most focused abilities and look for the good in every single situation? Not one negative word, not one assessment that someone else had failed to meet our expectations in any way. Thinking about the question of how could I help a situation, instead of bringing to someone elses’ attention about how messed up something is. A worthy goal indeed.
.-= Erin´s last blog ..Sacred Mystery =-.

David February 5, 2010 at 7:15 pm

Definitely would be a different place. I’m sure I’ll encounter a different world even if I’m the only one doing it. :)

Brenda (betaphi) February 5, 2010 at 10:51 pm

Reminds me of Ben Franklin’s 13 Virtues effort. Negativity wasn’t on his list but tranquility and silence were: Be not disturbed at trifles, and speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. The one that gave him the most trouble was Order. You and Ben are both more organized than I care to be. This sounds too hard. I wouldn’t be able to stay focused on one thing for three straight weeks. But I’m looking forward to your upcoming happy happy joy joy posts. That last post about world peace was kind of a downer. This one assumes that you, David Cain, are less than perfect, which is kind of a stretch for me. ;)
.-= Brenda (betaphi)´s last blog ..The Future =-.

David February 6, 2010 at 4:47 pm

This one assumes that you, David Cain, are less than perfect, which is kind of a stretch for me.

Hah! If you only knew. I think Raptitude makes me look better than I really am because I can backspace whatever doesn’t look good ;)

Erica February 8, 2010 at 1:30 am

It’s 1127 at night on Sunday and I just found this article randomly. You know what? If you’re starting in half an hour, so am I. Living in olympicville right now is going to prove it quite the challenge but I’ll try.

David February 8, 2010 at 1:35 am

Right on, good to have you with me Erica! I’ve actually already started though, it’s Monday night in New Zealand time. So far so good.

Good luck contending with the Olympic hoopla. In three weeks it will no longer be Olympicville anyway.

Nea | Self Improvement Saga February 13, 2010 at 8:33 pm

What a marvelous idea. I’m going out to buy that silicone bracelet tomorrow and start right away. So cool.
.-= Nea | Self Improvement Saga´s last blog ..Love and Relationship Quotes =-.

Eric April 5, 2010 at 1:58 pm

Making fun of bad movies is one of my favorite pastimes, so I’m afraid I may have to pass on this one. :P

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